The Forgotten Four Hundred: Chicago’s First Millionaires

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Potter Palmer died in 1902, after making State Street and Lake Shore Drive respectively the commercial and residential showplaces of the city. Bertha Palmer stayed in Chicago until 1910, then moved, at sixty-one, to Sarasota, Florida. She did not go to play cards and gossip in the sun. Instead she opened a real estate business, became a booster, brought citrus orchards and cattle ranches to the little community, and built her inheritance up to about fifteen million dollars. Potter Palmer had obviously taught her a thing or two. Or perhaps it had been the other way around.

With a courtier’s gesture, Potter Palmer presented his splendid new hotel to his young bride as a wedding gift.
 

End of the Era

By the time Bertha Palmer and Edith McCormick left their social thrones, an era was ending for Chicago and for the whole country as well. In forty post-Civil War years, the United States had surged to industrial greatness, largely by exploiting the mineral and agricultural wealth of the continental interior. More than any other American city, Chicago—and its men of means—stood for that headlong drive, in all its achievement and vulgarity.

After World War I, fortunes would still be made, but on different terms. Recent laws, including the income tax, no longer allowed the very wealthy to flourish with the unabashed self-assurance of the old masters of acquisition. And the big money now was to be found in different places. More of it was made in providing consumer goods, utilities, and urban transportation—and in manipulating stocks. These were the very places where Chicago’s best-known modern masters of capital—Charles T. Yerkes and Samuel Insull (see box on page 43)—made their illegal piles. Those two were part of the new Chicago whose reputation for robustness stayed alive in the Jazz Age. But the city’s true golden day of millionaires already lay behind it in the first generation—the day of the McCormicks, the Armours, and their like—folk heroes of a coarser, less homogenized and more honestly voracious America.